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Bolsonaro’s surprise success in Brazil gives new impetus to the rise of the far right

The ultraconservative candidate secured a first-round victory in the presidential election despite a rhetoric filled with sexist, racist and homophobic messages

Bolsonaro supporters celebrating his first-round victory on Sunday.
Bolsonaro supporters celebrating his first-round victory on Sunday. REUTERS

The story of Jair Bolsonaro is the story of Donald Trump’s victory; it is the story of Brexit; of the rejection of Colombia’s peace process; of the triumph of Matteo Salvini and the populist Five Star Movement in Italy; of the consolidation of Marine Le Pen in France.

The story goes that emotions, especially fear and hate, are more powerful than any political platform. It is the story of how, in Europe and Latin America, people are fed up with their leaders: in Europe the elites are being held responsible for the economic crisis and a deteriorating quality of life for broad sectors of society; in Latin America, the leading classes are accused of eroding institutions and fomenting corruption.

This is so much so that the mere promise of combating these practices carries more weight than the fact that the person making the promise is a supporter of the military dictatorship who makes sexist, racist and homophobic remarks.

A victory by Bolsonaro will send a message to the rest of Latin America

The infallible strategy followed by the ultraconservative Brazilian candidate is very similar to the previously mentioned cases: a use of coarse language that comes at no personal cost, constant criticism of traditional media organizations while he builds up his own support network, and a highly effective use of social media to achieve his goals.

In all these cases, there was a strong nationalist element as well as a cult of personality. Just as Trump did during the US presidential campaign, Bolsonaro also used his own children as spokespeople. In the early stages of the Brazilian campaign, one of his offspring held a meeting with Steve Bannon, who once served as a strategist for the US president. There is no evidence of a coordinated plan at the global level, but all these movements feed off one another and piggyback on the ultraconservative wave sweeping the world.

The highly likely victory by Bolsonaro will not just have an effect on Brazil. It will also send a message to the rest of Latin America, where authoritarians are in charge in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and are making inroads in Guatemala, to cite the most recent example. Bolsonaro’s strong results also give new momentum to the advance of the far right across the globe. It is a victory for the more conservative elites – the Brazilian markets celebrated Sunday’s results with confetti – which choose to play down the threat posed by characters such as Bolsonaro with the argument that he should not be taken so seriously, that his words are just bravado, and that he will not govern the way he talks.

The country is now facing three decisive and polarizing weeks

The country is now facing three decisive and polarizing weeks that will force both candidates to convince voters to embrace an option that they have so far rejected. In Bolsonaro’s case, the million-dollar question is: how will he attract center voters if his unexpectedly good results are based on being a far-right radical? Is it even worth the effort, when 44% of voters are turning their back on him? Fernando Haddad, of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), will presumably throw everything he has handy at him, using all the weapons of old-style politics that his party handles so well, or did. The PT will step up its attacks against Bolsonaro, a former member of the military whom it accuses of not respecting human rights and of wanting to take the country back 40 years.

But playing in Bolsonaro’s favor is the fact that none of this is new, nor has it stopped him in his tracks so far. What’s more, Brazilians’ apparent lack of interest in democracy affords Bolsonaro protection from any attack. At the same time, anti-PT sentiment – a feeling that everyone knew existed, but not to this extent – provides endless fuel to the far-right candidate. Ten days ago, more than 59% of people who voted for Bolsonaro were self-declared PT haters; now, Bolsonaro needs to convince disillusioned center voters: while he may not be the perfect candidate, at least he is not with the PT.

Haddad is facing a considerably bigger challenge. Now more than ever, he needs to win the votes reserved for former PT leader Inazio Lula da Silva, while freeing himself from his mentor’s long shadow in order to attract at least some anti-PT voters. His only hope of defeating Bolsonaro is to unify those two electorates, which have been at odds for years, and to consolidate himself as a center candidate precisely in a section of the political spectrum where voters are most tempted to switch to Bolsonaro. The ace up his sleeve is that he will be able to portray himself in the runoff as a greater democrat than his rival. In order to win, this time people will have to trust that he is.

English version by Susana Urra.

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